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Dealing with the digital deficit

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 14, 2013
Over 25 million people in the UK can't or won't use online channels. That's storing up a heap of trouble for a nation that claims to want to move to a digital economy.

There's a fundamental flaw at the heart of the UK government's push towards Digital by Default - not everyone's going to be able or willing to access services delivered via digital channels.

The numbers make for grim reading. There are 16 million people in the UK who currently lack even the most basic online skills while 7.4 million people have never been online.

For such individuals, Digital By Default isn't something that they're likely to celebrate as much as ignore or resist.

And of course among that 25 million plus base are the most vulnerable in society, the ones often most in need of being able to access public sector services.

No way back

That said, Digital by Default is an admirable and laudable goal.

Politically speaking, it aches with the techno-modernity so beloved of government ministers.

Economically speaking, it's a chance to cut costs and operate in more austerity-compatible manner.

So despite the subtle revisionism that's crept into the forthcoming Universal Benefit roll out - which is now Digital Where Appropriate - overall there's no turning back on this one.

And nor should there be. The digital skills shortage in the UK should be a matter of great concern. It's not just in the public sector that this is an issue. Economic growth in the private sector is also tied to digital delivery across industry and the harsh reality is that as a nation the UK currently lacks the talent pool it's going to need.

Prime Minister David Cameron has flagged this up:

"It is vital that we ensure our people and businesses recognise the opportunities that the web offers, and have world-class digital skills."

Yes, Prime Minister. An excellent notion. An admirable policy. So what's the plan?

A lot of the answer lies with the Baroness of Soho - or Martha Lane Fox as she's been better known up to now. The founder is a big favourite in Downing Street circles of all political persuasions.

In 2009, she was appointed the UK Government's Digital Inclusion Champion by the Labour government of the day to head a two year campaign to make the British public more computer literate. The following year the current Coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promoted her to become UK Digital Champion.

Late in 2010 Lane Fox delivered a report - Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution - to the Cabinet Office which has informed digital policy making ever since.

The digital Baroness

This year Lane Fox was rewarded with an elevation to the House of Lords - the upper chamber of the UK parliamentary system - where she made her maiden address this week in her new guise as Baroness Lane Fox of Soho.

Predictably enough, her opening address tackled digital policy head on. She told the noble Lords and Ladies of her disappointment at the pace of digital progress in the UK:

"When we first began to build in 1998 we spent most of our time on a mission to convince customers, investors and suppliers that the internet would not blow up and was going to be a positive force in the economy. It was therefore a surprise to me that over ten years later, when I was asked to become UK Digital Champion I was still spending most of my time encouraging two successive governments and many millions of people that the internet has much to offer."

Despite this there has been private sector progress, she argued:

"The UK has built strong digital foundations. The country has moved on considerably from the era of the website we created that was held together with string. The internet economy accounts for over 8% of our GDP – greater than any other G20 country. We have competitively priced access and good digital infrastructure in many parts of the country. The UK has the highest percentage of ecommerce in its retail sector in the world and one study suggests the internet now accounts for around a quarter of our economic growth."

But there's still the elephant in the room of those 16 million people without basic digital skills which she flagged up as a major concern:

"Why does this matter? Partly because we know the majority of that number come from the most disadvantaged communities and we also know that people who are online are 40% more likely to be able to get work and that they attain 25% better grades in education. Being online saves you money too – even the lowest income households can save up to £170 a year. we also know that internet usage can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness – important when you consider 1.5m of the unskilled are living alone and have no visitors in a whole week.

"We must not create a two tier society but instead should aspire to a universality of digital skills that will help the UK to grow and prosper at a national level as well as at an individual one. I believe that we will never unleash the potential of all citizens without focusing on all aspects of digital growth – both skills and infrastructure. who knows what the homegrown innovations of the future might be?"

What's the plan?

Fine words and sincerely delivered. But again it has to be asked: what's the plan to fix this? Where's the money? If it's so vital to the economic well being of UK Plc, where's the funding to get a plan of action in place to tackle the skills shortfall.

Government investment is going into the infrastructure underpinning a digital economy. Cameron boasts:

"We are investing around £1bn in our digital infrastructure to ensure that everyone in the UK has access to fast, reliable broadband. These changes will reinforce the UK’s position as a leading digital economy and will help to create local jobs and national growth."

Yes again, Prime Minister - vital investment without doubt, but it doesn't really tackle the problem that having a great infrastructure is rather redundant if 25 million people are still digitally disenfranchised.

The reality is that while the politicians are talking a good talk around the subject and the Cabinet Office is pressing on with its Digital by Default programme, it's being left to those outside government to take action.

This week at the Digital Skills CEO Summit in London run by charity Go ON UK - which has as its mission statement the aim of making the UK the "most digitally skilled nation in the world" - The Big Lottery Fund (BIG) announced an investment of £15m to build the digital skills that people and organisations across the UK need.

BIG chief executive Peter Wanless said:

“BIG has £15m available to the organisations who can demonstrate most convincingly to us how they will use the cash to turn the disconnected and disinterested into confident users of online services. We are alerting people now so potential applicants can develop the strongest and most convincing partnerships and plans that they can."

That's terrific, of course, but £15 million isn't going to go very far. Wanless himself admits:

"We expect to fund only a handful of significant projects, so competition will be intense."

The good intentions behind this funding isn't in question. Wanless says on the BIG corporate blog:

We are at a turning point with digital technology when the actions we take now can define how society looks in the future. Connecting everyone to online services in ways they will see as helpful and relevant will equip an entire nation with the chance to access a world that could otherwise remain closed in ways that will compound the disadvantage already felt by those most in need.

But we need a lot more BIGs to come forward and make similar commitments if there's to be a visible transformation in the UK's fortunes.

There are others out there. For example, mobile phone operator EE has pledged to help one million Britons improve their digital skills by 2015.

In its first corporate responsibility report, EE stated:

Digital exclusion is a massive social and economic issue that leaves people at risk of being left out of modern society.

To tackle the problem, EE has kicked off a community outreach programme run by Digital Champions who are EE employees who have been trained up to deliver community-based learning sessions. The company trained 35 of its staff to be Digital Champions last year and wants that total raised to 300 by the end of this year.

Action needed

Full marks to EE and BIG and all the other corporate supporters of Go ON UK. But isn't it time to see more action from government?

Dating back half a century to Harold Wilson's 'white heat of technology' rhetoric in 1963, all politicians succumb to a crush on technology at some point - it's just a phase they go through. It passes.

The Coalition government has done some impressive IT thinking over the past couple of years and delivered on that in the form of initiatives such as the G-Cloud programme and the Digital by Default agenda.

But it's time to drill down on the skills front with a serious and practical action plan led from Westminster, not left to charities and the largesse of companies with a social conscience.

The UK simply cannot afford as a nation to wait for the generational shift to occur as the digital natives become the establishment norm.

And we really can't leave it all to the honourable Baroness of Soho, you know.

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